One year after announcing a plan to phase-out its full-time MBA program, officials of the University of Iowa Tippie College of Business unveiled a new strategy to keep students enrolled. And it doesn't involve sitting in a classroom. 

This spring's graduating class of the full-time Master of Business Administration program will be Tippie College's last — as more business schools across the country do away with full-time, residential programs due to dropping enrollment. But last month, the college approved a plan to revamp its part-time Professional MBA program by adding a fully-online option available next fall.  

"We started talking about this fairly seriously in 2015 as what was going on in the market indicated that there was somewhat decreasing interest in full-time programs. People don't want to step out of the workplace for two years," said David Frasier, associate dean of the Tippie College of Business' MBA programs. "Students want more flexibility in terms of where and when they take courses." 

In addition, St. Ambrose University in Davenport launched its first online MBA program this fall, which offers an accelerated format featuring eight-week classes, allowing full-time students to earn their degree in around 14 months. 

“We’re trying to reach a variety of constituents and adults, who like the rest of us, are busy and want a format that’s high quality and works for them,” James Loftus, vice president of enrollment management, said. “I think we’ve had a really good reputation of being in the community. But as times change and technology advances, I think like many other universities, we felt the need to be adaptive and responsive to the needs of the learner.”

Online programs are nothing new for either college. The University of Iowa's College of Business offered its first online MBA course in 2003, according to Frasier. But as business schools work to evolve amid dropping enrollment, the new programs give a glimpse into the future of the MBA, he said. 

For the past several years, American business schools have received fewer applications. According to a Graduate Management Admission Council survey of more than 1,000 graduate business programs at 363 colleges, 70 percent of two-year full-time MBA programs saw a decline in applications this year. 

Part-time MBA programs have been struggling nationwide, too, according to the survey, but Frasier said Tippie has been bucking this trend. Last year, Tippie officials said 91 percent of all students seeking master of business administration degrees were enrolled in the part-time professional MBA and executive MBA programs. 

At the Davenport location alone — which opened in 2016 at the Birchwood Fields Learning Center — enrollment in the Professional MBA program has been steadily growing. This year, 206 students are enrolled, compared to 183 in 2017. 

"What's been interesting is we have been growing our part-time program, the Professional MBA," Frasier said. "When many programs in other markets have been shrinking, we've been running counter to national trends there. And we're also seeing this market opportunity with online." 

Despite stronger enrollment, he said it's time for all of the MBA programs to change, to keep up with the evolving, global economy.

At St. Ambrose, Loftus said the college has had success by offering flexible programs that cater to adult students’ schedules. That means fully online, fully in-person, or a mix of both.

“I think more people are turning to online, but the format is changing,” Loftus said. “The part-time, once or twice a week on evenings for four hours format, is changing. I think it’s effective but not as popular. So we’ve had to put some of our resources into exploring and marketing the options of hybrid programs. We want students to have the opportunity to take online and on-ground courses to pursue the degree. The hybrid notion is where we’re seeing success.”

The bulk of MBA students have around seven years of experience or more, both Frasier and Loftus said, and they’re looking for graduate programs that don’t disrupt their careers.

“Obviously students who are not geographically located near one of our in-person sites can now have access to the program,” Frasier said of the new Tippie online MBA. “Another advantage is all of our students are working professionals, and many of them work for national or multi-national companies, so they run the risk of having to move of out their area. This gives them to the opportunity to complete and not have to stop.”

The new offerings are focused on allowing students to have more control over when and how they complete the MBA programs, he said.

The St. Ambrose College of Business’ MBA was the first graduate program it offered, around 40 years ago. Along with now bringing the program online, Loftus said the college is re-envisioning its curriculum to keep up with stiffer competition for recruiting executive talent across several industries.

The college of business’ new dean, Maritza Espina, who joined St. Ambrose this summer, previously said she is looking to shake up the business programs, by focusing more on out-of-classroom experiences and community collaboration. She’s also emphasizing environmental sustainability and ethics in the curriculum.  

“We’re really trying to educate the whole person,” Loftus said. “So, we have an ethics requirement in the business program. We’re trying to educate good leaders and great citizens, which is what makes it so special and unique. We continue to explore venues that underscore those tenets in our offerings.”

Both St. Ambrose and Tippie College have also diversified the types of business credentials they offer, as students choose master’s programs more closely aligned with specific fields. This fall, Tippie College launched a master’s program in finance, for example. Loftus said St. Ambrose has added a business analytics certificate program and is considering a cyber security program.

Market trends and changing workplaces have transformed what both students and employers look to get out of MBA programs, according to the Graduate Management Admission Council. According to the non-profit, recruiting business master's graduates is a priority for 71 percent of employers. 

And earning a master's in business pays off more than it used to, according to a report by the Financial Times, which has studied MBA graduate salaries since 2014. Since that year, it reported MBA graduates typically at least double their salaries within three years of completing the degree. 

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